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Helge Stadelmann {*}

What Evangelicals Like to Contribute
to the Overall Church Dialogue

 

From the periodical of the Catholic Academy Bavaria
'zur debatte', 5/2007, P. 8-10
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

I. The Evangelicals are a broad and by no means homogeneous movement

Regarding the belonging to churches one has to do it with the Evangelicals (according to an analysis of my Gießen colleague Stephan Holthaus) with the following dimensions: "250 million Christians belong [...] to the classical Evangelical churches, 100 million Evangelicals are found non-Evangelical congregations, 10 million in the Roman-Catholic and Orthodox Churches, 100 million in independent Evangelical circles." Hence the altogether about 460 million Evangelical Christians world-wide are as regards denomination not homogeneous. Also their roots are many and divers. According to a study made in 1988 by Mark Ellingsen for the Strasbourg Institute for Ecumenical Research the Evangelicals developed in the Anglo-Saxon North American area before the background of the radical wing of the Reformation, of Puritanism and pietism, revivalist and holiness movement and the fundamentalism of the early 20th century but parted already in 1942 with the more and more fundamentalist movement and founded the "National Association of Evangelicals". In Germany the Evangelicals - despite certain cross connections to the Anglo-Saxon area for over four centuries - have their own roots in pietism, neo-pietism, neo-confessionalism, holiness- and Free-Church restitution movement and since 1846 co-operate in the Evangelical Alliance (as the oldest Protestant unity movement) not only nationally but internationally with Evangelical Alliances in by now 127 countries.

Regardless of many other differences they share - so Ellingsen - more or less several characteristics: a rather reserved attitude to the inter-church ecumenism; a high estimation of the Bible as the true word of God; an emphasis on ethical standards for the Christian life; a tendency to a theology based on experience under emphasis on conversion and sanctification with simultaneous under-emphasis of factors as office, sacrament and church structures; instead of it putting main stress on evangelisation and world mission; an understanding of ethics as ethics of order instead of ethics of situation; and they have a high readiness for all-embracing contacts with Christians of similar faith coinage. In his doctoral thesis Friedhelm Jung differentiates Alliance Evangelicals, Confession Evangelicals and Pentecostal Evangelicals. But also these categories mix today in various shades. Beyond all individual differences will apply that Evangelical Christians as regards the essence of things are until today representatives of the particula exclusiva of the Reformation: only Christ (brings salvation); only the Scriptures (are standard of faith); only faith (saves); only God be honoured (is the goal of all divine and - hopefully! - all human doing).

The survey shows: In view of the differences between the Evangelicals it is important to be on one's guard against sweeping judgments. Nevertheless there are some typical characteristics.

 

II. Evangelicals are a challenge as Bible movement

John Stott, one of the world-wide most recognized Evangelical leaders, sees the Evangelicals' emphasis on the Bible as its most outstanding characteristic. He writes: "We Evangelicals are Bible people. We believe that God spoke fully and finally in his Son Jesus Christ and in the Biblical testimony about Christ. We believe that the Scriptures are precisely the written Word of God, and since it is God's word it has the highest authority over the church. The precedence of the Scriptures was always the first characteristic of an Evangelical and will always remain it." Accordingly the "Basis of Faith of the Evangelical Alliance" (1972) professes its faith in "the divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, its total reliability and highest authority in all questions of faith and conduct of life" (Article 2). With gradual differences in details many similar confessions in the Evangelical area could be proven.

Evangelical theology assumes that the subject of theology is God in his Revelation, as he revealed himself in his Creation, in his words and deeds in the history of salvation - last in his Son Jesus Christ - and in the Holy Scriptures inspired by his Spirit. Evangelicals understand the conception of itself of the Holy Scriptures is absolutely superior to man in its claim to truth and obedience, but that it is at the same time a collection of writings given to man by God in historical situations and various literary genres the respective literal meaning of which is to and can be recognized.

 


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Of course Evangelicals welcome the gift of reason for the study of the Biblical word in its creaturely linguistic character and historicity. But they think it is inappropriate to set the human reason absolute, to give it precedence over the Holy Scriptures, and in consequence to relativize the word of the Revelation.

In this connection Evangelicals in the inner-Protestant discourse time and as critics again gave their view on 'the' historical-critical method and its hypotheses. It is not so as if Evangelicals were sceptically disposed towards a thoroughly scientific work on the Bible! On the contrary, they rather share with various historical-critical theologies the interest in the 'human' side of the Holy Scriptures and acknowledge that their research has led to innumerable valuable discoveries within the historical-philological field. But in the working out of those discoveries not only "liberal", but also "conservative" theologians took part. The disagreement does also not consist in that one side by means of a well-founded methodology did perfect exegesis, whereas the other side practiced a naive-subjective understanding of the Bible that would not withstand scientific standards. No, also Evangelical theologians know how to disclose their premises and methods and to let them be examined as regards their being appropriate to the matter; they too work with evidences and hypotheses and will time and again examine them on the subject of their research and expose them to inter-subjective verifiability. The disagreement is elsewhere. The final document of a three-year consultation process between representatives of the governing body of the Protestant church as well as theological faculties and representatives of the Evangelical movement in the years 1988 to 1990 formulated the disagreement from Evangelical view as follows: "[The historical-critical theology as it comes from Ernst Troeltsch,] has 'thousand-fold decomposed, corrected and changed the understanding of the Bible as regards its contents and this always with the result of an only probable correctness.' (Ernst Troeltsch) In the course of its history the historical criticism sinned always anew against the revealed Word of God by subjecting it to changing ideological-philosophical premises and to the from there constructed views on man, world and history as well as to the methodical doubt. Biblical statements are often relativized by literary respectively historical hypotheses. One distinguishes between the word of man that can be analysed and the binding Word of God, so that in consequence of that always new "canons" are defined in the canon [...]. The individual researcher determines then what of the Biblical statements is still historically and theologically binding."

What was criticized here was not the reasonable scientific work on and with the Bible as such but a subjective criticism: its ideological premises, its enthusiasm about hypotheses and its appropriateness to the matter in question were questioned.

Probably most Evangelicals could very well live with the understanding of the Scriptures and the understanding of Jesus resulting from it, as Benedict XVI formulated it in his latest Jesus book and worked it out in demarcation to many critical approaches of the last 150 years. But those who think so meet at present all too easily the trite reproach of 'fundamentalism'. I think this reproach is not objective. One may explicate in detail with the help of the history of ideas by what the scientific fundamentalism of the early 20th century was constituted. But the ground of objectivity is left by those who today accuse of 'fundamentalism' everyone who theologically thinks more conservatively than they do, when 30 years after Khomeini's revolution 'fundamentalism' is regularly used as name for violent enforcement of religious convictions - also in the sense of terror-ready Islamists - and at best serves as insult for dull ignorance.

For Evangelical Christians their standing up for the Biblical faith and Biblical values has as little to do with intolerant imposing of religious convictions as for peaceful G8-demonstrators their standing up for better living conditions in Africa with violent riot. For Evangelicals as Bible movement actually something completely different has priority: On the one hand they see their respect for the Bible and their intensive study of it as function of their love of God, who gave his word to his church as gift. They are convinced that the gift of God's word creates and builds up the church. Who wants to know why Evangelical congregrations grow has scarcely any choice but to look at the role of the Biblical word of God in the Evangelical movement. And conversely: Who wants to know why in some places Evangelical congregations too no longer grow will likewise do good to ask among other things how it is there about the understanding of the Scriptures and the status respectively quality of the proclamation of God's word. The research on the growth of congregations has shown that these admittedly are not sufficient but nevertheless necessary and substantial factors of growth

.

Just in the southern hemisphere, where Christianity emigrates in our lifetime in a change of religion-historical extent, not a Christianity reduced to boundaries of inner-worldly reasonableness gains acceptance, nor a only politically interpreted gospel, but - with all the teething troubles that without doubt are just to be found in the churches of the Two-third World too! - a Bible-referred Christianity open to transcendence, which takes the needs of human beings seriously, gives them orientation by standards coming to them from outward and brings faith within their experience.

In a time of global change it could be helpful for the global church to learn from the Evangelicals as Bible movement. - The second thing that I would like to present as (possibly) noteworthy is this.

 

Evangelicals are a Challenge as Evangelistic Movement

For Evangelical Christians the question about salvation and its acquisition by personal faith in Jesus Christ, as it is preached in the gospel stands right at the top on of the priority list. Not that the question about the earthly well-being of human beings was forgotten. The world mission movement of Evangelicalism, which has its origin in the pietism of the 18th and in various religious revivals of the 19th and 20th century, was always also connected with intensive charitable efforts. The belonging together of preaching the gospel and holistic endeavour towards the earthy well-being of human beings was not least anew affirmed in the "Lausanne Covenant" of 1974. But evangelisation had always the first priority for Evangelicals, understood as proclaiming the gospel and calling to faith. When they at the end of the 1960ies had the impression that within the ecumenical movement world mission was threatened to be replaced by political theologies and humanization- and dialogue programs, they opposed that development with their Frankfurt "Declaration on the basic crisis of the mission" of 4 March 1970. When within the Protestant Church in Germany today evangelisation is slowly being rediscovered (see the new stress on evangelisation since the EKD Synod in 1999), Evangelicals have here not only a lead of 30 years but show from their central concern a comparatively stronger affinity to the topic evangelisation. There is no need for them to rediscover "evangelisation".

Typically Evangelicals understand 'being a Christian' primarily not in a sacramental way as an attributed characteristic but in the context of a theology of conversion as acquired characteristic of course not in the sense of self-redemption!). The salvation opened by Christ alone is on the strength of grace alone by the gospel promised man in such a way that s/he is - in a spiritual event - called to faith obedience and liberated for the answer of faith, with the consequence that the acquisition of salvation can and is to happen. Hence Evangelicals in their proclamation of the gospel do not shrink from clearly calling to faith and the conversion of man - not because they thought the sinful human being was able to achieve faith and conversion out of itself; but because they are convinced that God - by his Spirit by means of the word of the gospel - leaves the decision to choose faith to man.

Of course it is true that not all Evangelicals are active as Evangelists. Of course examples could be found for almost sectarian 'man-catcher methods' with enticing 'Health & Wealth' offers that will find their sharpest critics however just among the Evangelicals themselves. And of course there are a ample discussions among Evangelicals about appropriate ways of evangelisation. But at the same time it is probably undisputed that in the last 50 years in the framework of world mission nothing else has promoted evangelisation so much as the Evangelical Church Growth Movement with its various developments and models.

Evangelicals do not see themselves as guardians of the Christian tradition and a slowly decreasing stock of culturally communicated attachment to the church. They are expansive and creative in their missionary thinking. As example I mention the project of three graduates of our Gießen Academy, as they presented it a few days ago to the current body of students and lecturers. Already while studying the motivation arose to found congregations in the city area of large cities among people alienated from the church. After the end of their studies 2002/2003 they did preparing one-year practical training in New York (Manhattan) and Toronto. Then they went to Berlin - according to the "Spiegel" the 'World Capital of Atheism'. In the eastern city centre, in Prenzlauer Berg they began with their evangelistic work, became acquainted with the life of the people there, got in contact with them. At the beginning of 2005 they began with 'Sofa Services" in their apartment. When after half a year these had increased from 25 to 40 participants, they in October 2005 rented a suitable larger room in the 'Culture Brewery' and invited among the city population to the opening. 60 visitors came to the first service; half a year later at Easter 2006 they were already 100 participants; today there are about 200 visitors per service. About half of the participants comes as regards their profession from the artistic-creative area, but there are also journalists and other ambitious young people, who come to a large extent from a background alienated from the church (but only a few of them from a really atheist coinage). Two thirds of them are between 25 and 40-year-old; the majority is single. The services of the Berlin project are shaped by up-to-date ambience, true-to-life sermon, and cultured newer music styles. The love and grace of God is strongly emphasized as enabling and motivating faith and ethics. Soon a second City-Church-Project is to start in the Hamburg city centre, which one of the team of three will begin. Such evangelistic foundations of congregations are no particular case in Germany. As the last but one edition of "ideaSpektrum" with reference to my co-referent Dr. Reinhard Hempelmann reports, " in Germany in the meantime about 250.000 Christians meet in independent Evangelical and Pentecostal-charismatical congregations. Ten years ago the information was: about 100.000".

When up to the 1970ies Evangelicals to a large extent concentrated on and restricted themselves to meeting-evangelisation s, under the influence of the Church Growth Movement evangelisation was connected more strongly with congregation: Evangelisation as communication of the gospel is to lead to the emergence of (respectively integration into) congregations; and congregations for their part are to show a missionary-evangelistic outward effect. The concept of the American Saddleback Church can serve as an example for this feedback control system, according to which one offers to people who are interested in faith an evangelistic basis catechesis leading to the baptism and integration into the congregation; the further catechesis within the congregation is to lead to qualitative religious growth and then to qualified cooperation. And finally co-workers are to be enabled and motivated to address non-Christians in their neighbourhood as regards faith and to testify to them the gospel - by which the circle closes again.

 


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In organizing congregations as goal of evangelisation Evangelicals are amazingly flexible but not arbitrary. They take measure from the characteristics of the New Testament congregation. The statements of the New Testament about the congregations of the apostolic time they by no means regard as contradictory but as complementary and thus qualified for imitation. On this basis it is their goal to arrange the congregation according to the New Testament. But far less they feel obliged to the tradition and traditional forms of the church. That makes them flexible. Their action-leading church theory is then for them basically nothing else but a concretization of a critical contextualization: Contextual needs and possibilities are examined in each case by the criterion of the Holy Scriptures and their image of a congregation. And what constitutes a New Testament congregation is - under critical consideration of the respective cultural contexts - appropriately converted into current forms. Thus contemporary congregations develop which are determined by the gospel and the New Testament picture of a congregation and at the same time culturally relevant. Contextualization understood in such a way is then also not the drawing up of "truth" out of the context but the awareness of contexts, of their challenges and possibilities, the examination of their acceptability and need for completion with the help of the criteria of the Holy Scriptures and the use of the so recognized in a culturally relevant way.

 

IV. Evangelicals are a Challenge as Service Movement

Traditional services after the Mass type, perfect in form and deep symbolism on the part of the Catholics, Anglicans, and (in a moderate form) Lutherans are undoubtedly a festival for all senses and an oasis for spiritual thoughtfulness. But they are even among the respective church members only for a minority so attractive that they motivate them to take part regularly in the service of the church congregation. Within the Protestant Church in Germany there are - according to the church of a Land - 2 to 4 per cent of the Protestant parishioners - who attend the service with some regularity. Services have become target group meetings for lovers of forms rich in tradition, dignified singing, cultivated organ music and thoughtful sermons. Who is so socialized and comes from an appropriate milieu will be unable to imagine a different liturgy - some people even want it old-fashioned in Latin.

The difference to the everyday life of people is however large. Nobody else wears today garments and practices rites that go back to the imperial court ceremonies of the late Roman Empire, or talks in a language perfect in form the roots of which go back more than 1500 years. Artistically dissonant organ preludes (which at the good end are nevertheless resolved yet) may be paid honour! But which contemporary between fifteen and fifty lives today in everyday life with such music? Has it to be in the service like that? Who in this single-society leaves her/his apartment to go to a church that one silently enters - without being addressed - and also silently leaves again? When s/he usually leaves her/his apartment s/he does it to meet people and to have a good time with them. Is just that inconceivable for the service?

Evangelicals see that differently. They would certainly recognize that today's liturgy has an amazing continuity to liturgical structures and forms of the 5th century - with all differences in detail. But they would doubt whether one is to imagine so a service in a fisherman's house in Capernaum of the first century or in a house church in Ephesus with Aquila, Priscilla and Paul. Certainly they would set great store on the fact that the elements that were at that time in the New Testament constitutive for the services are also today not missing: meeting in the name of Jesus; reading, reciting and interpreting the Scriptures; praying, singing and confessing of the congregation; baptizing the converts and celebrating the Lord's Supper; practicing the general priesthood by mutually serving each other according to the orders of God with the gifts given by God's Spirit; and not least the personal maintaining of community up to common meals and to mutual assistance where someone needs it. The list does not claim completeness. But Evangelicals would be convinced: Those elements can be lived in all apostolic simplicity in such a way that such services - with cultural, linguistic, musical or interpretative aspects addressing everyone - communicate into the respective contemporary society with its human beings and milieu. What does not mean that such services - taking our fellow-men's cultural relevance into consideration - had to do without signs of attachment to the church of all times!

In this way Evangelicals on all continents minted very different service forms, which obviously succeed in addressing amazingly many people in the various cultures, environments and denominations. Of course they do not everything correctly there. They experimented a lot with services, developed target group services that were oriented towards sociological group characteristics - and overlooked by it that in the service after the New Testament not a target group but the whole congregation comes together. They developed service conceptions for people who had become estranged from the church ("Seeker services") and did not consider that a service is first the meeting of God's people. In charismatic eagerness and with reference to Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians some promoted enthusiastic services without any order and did not notice that they so created again just from what the Apostle wanted with good reasons to dissuade the Corinthians. And of course there are also among the Evangelicals traditionalists who steadfastly keep to forms of the past, with which they grew up, even if they reach less and less people with their services. As a rule they then keep not to the forms of the 5th but rather of the 19th century. But all those things are rather not typical for Evangelicals.

One can perhaps formulate the characteristic - cum grano salis - in such a way: There are churches that allow themselves in handling the Bible and contents of theology an amazing measure of liberality - but are at the same time strictly conservative and traditional in organizing their religious and church life. And there are congregations that steadfastly and - if one so wants - "conservatively" keep to Biblical contents in doctrine and ethos - but are at the same time amazingly modern (or even: post-modern) in the style of their services and congregations. Evangelicals have a general trend respectively belong to the latter group. And they connect it with a strong, missionary motivated attention to people of their time. There then also some or other chorale may ring out, accompanied by E-piano, bass and saxophone; but likewise catchy adoration songs in the soft pop or rock style have their place, accompanied from a band with grand piano, e-guitar, bass, transverse flute and drums - a style in which in the meantime even substantial liturgical elements of the Mass type are composed, into which young and old enthusiastically join singing (without this Christian music style spread world-wide already getting a place in the usual descriptions of church music).

To reproach them merely of fundamentalism and to shove them into the extremist corner does certainly not justice to Evangelical Christians. It does above all not explain the growth of the Evangelicals world-wide and their ability to reach with the gospel people who became estranged from the church, to help Christians to a Biblical majority, and to integrate young and alt in congregations and services that appear relatively modern. To it one had rather to ask about the positive challenges which Evangelical Christians are for their fellow-Christians. Their emphasis on the Bible, their orientation towards evangelisation and their flexibility as regards services do certainly not yet explain everything what constitutes Evangelicals. But with those points central for them they gladly face the inter-denominational dialogue.

 

    {*} Professor Dr. Helge Stadelmann, Rector of the Free Theological Academy Gießen, head of the department practical theology

 

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